Tabletop Meditations #10: Death

Mentioning the grim reaper conjures up the gruesome image of death, a worm-eaten skeleton cloaked in rot-black and bearing a scythe used to cut-down the living like chaff which manifests personally or through its followers especially in the fantasy realms of role-playing games. Whatever its guise it is inevitably an inescapable force as present in the fictional universe as it is a process in the actual and it is inevitable that Player Characters (PCs) will die on occasion. How should the player, the Game-Master (GM), and the adventurer group as a whole handle it when a Player Character (PC) is cut-down in their prime?

When characters are killed regardless of the cause or where the fault may lie and ignoring such phenomena as DoDs (Dungeons of Death) and Killer GMs, it can have an emotional impact on the player and on the course of the campaign in general. The player’s feeling of loss probably originates from losing something that they have in effect birthed directly from their imaginations and possibly spent quite some time molding, building and adapting. Players in other words tend to specialize in their characters making all transitions to new characters, not just due to death either, fairly difficult. The intimate knowledge the player has of their character has to be let go, partially forgotten in order for them to move on. Such options as building a character of a different race, culture, or character class than their former character can help as well as preventing them from consciously or unconsciously recreating their old character.

The player may also feel the emotional impact of sudden loss which is comprised of surprise, disappointment, and what amounts to the sting of ‘losing the game’. Of course as individuals, players will feel any combination of the previous and at varying degrees. Any shame or scorn the group heaps upon them due to their negative reaction or visible disappointment will only magnify these negative feelings and will discourage new players from returning and may give them second thoughts about joining any other gaming groups they may encounter in the future. A sensible amount of sensitivity in these situations is usually called for although if a character dies in a bizarre, stupid, or just plain comedic way, then laughing at it or telling stories about it in good humor are typically not out of line. Criticism of how the player directed their character can wait however allowing for a little time to pass (probably until the next game session) and should come in the form of helpful non-condescending advice.

When PCs die it has the most immediate and most emotional impact on the PC’s player but it also can throw a major wrench into the GMs plans and send the campaign head-on into a dead-end or cause it to tailspin into chaos. This occurs when the dead character was involved in at least one important unresolved plotline. Even unimportant plotlines can have a cumulative effect on the campaign if the number of unresolved plots tied to a dead character is numerous. Some of said plots will be simply cut-off essentially being resolved by the character’s death unable to continue but may still leaving behind a feeling of irresolution. This sense of incompletion can be used by the Game-Master to generate some new hooks. This remains true for those threads that are vitally important to the campaign as well. The sense of needing to have an end to these loose-ends is an opening and chance to catch the attentions of the living PCs.

In the advent of character death the GM needs to make a quick assessment as to exactly which plotlines have been cut-off and which simply leave the group with a feeling of emptiness and which are necessary to steer the campaign. The GM needs to think of ways to reattach the important threads back to the surviving members if they have not already done so in the course of play up to that point. At the very least, the GM needs alternate lines, back-up plans, to work around the loss or drop clues so as to cause the survivors to seek out the loose threads. The GM, with the player’s permission, can also use this as an opportunity to clue the other PCs in on certain hidden aspects of the dead character letting them get to know the deceased character in an indirect way adding a little more deepness to the game.

This all rides on the assumption of course that death is not something that is easy to overcome. In role-playing games and especially those in the fantasy genre, the settings tend to alter the nature of death itself making it in some situations more an inconvenience rather than the ultimate fate of a living being. This is reliant on how death is treated in the setting material, by the GM, and by the player group. Magical resurrection is typically the solution to “bring back” dead characters so any dependent plots are only temporarily stalled taking some of the difficulty from the role of the GM reducing death to a simple narrative device. Of course, there are other implications to this approach both mechanically and sociologically/philosophically in respect to the game world. The effects on the attitudes of the world’s occupants can range from complete indifference to the phenomena of death to outright non-morality when it comes to certain actions such as murder. What does it matter if the victim will be resurrected easily even though there may still be psychological damage to tend with after suffering such a trauma? Mechanically the questions to answer regarding resurrection are its availability, its difficulty, and stipulations (if any). All three points can and should be regulated by the GM but if the GM is using material authored by a third-party such as a purchased setting and/or supplements their hands may be tied, especially if the group objects, the alteration may ‘break’ the setting/world, or the GM has already set an in-game precedent (probably for plot convenience).

There are 3 basic mechanical approaches to the nature of death in an RPG: Resurrection, Permanent Death (also referred to as Perma-Death), and No-Death. The thrill of narrowly avoiding death is a great motivator for players and is the primary (and for the GM easiest) source of suspense in dire situations. Precluding death of any kind when regarding the PCs eliminates this and in effect does reduce the fun a bit although it will make all the players feel “safe” foisting more weight onto the shoulders of the GM to set-up the thrills. Another trade-off to this approach is that the GM doesn’t have to worry about random deaths throwing a wrench into their plans. Players should feel that there is risk in the game world concerning their characters. This opens an easy avenue for the GM to create tension. But the GM should stop short of just “knocking one off” just to send a message to their players. Done right death will be a palpable presence in the game whenever the players pick up their dice in a risky situation. Death also opens the possibility of death-defying heroics and the potential for self-sacrifice. Characters can suffer near-death experiences and players can enjoy or suffer the excitement of escaping the slavering jaws of death some may even make it a habit to tempt death whenever they can precluding the need to make an “example” out of anyone. However, this approach can elevate emotions and exacerbate player reaction if a PC bites it at the height of the action.

Permanent death may heighten the tension but it in my experience it seems to cause the players to tread a little too lightly especially if they’re attached to their characters they tend to want to err on the side of caution every time bogging the game down and reducing the potential for action immensely. Permanent death should be a shadow hanging over the PCs imaginary heads but there should always be a possibility for reversing the course (often magic or divine intervention become the narrative devices in this mode) though this option shouldn’t be easy or readily available to just anyone for reasons discussed previously.

Another aspect of in-game death that can become an issue is its level of apparent randomness. Random death is a real possibility when including death in the game (the dice do fall where they may). Basically this happens when without intending to the GM presents a situation where a PC is killed and the GM had planned otherwise. This is also true of NPCs though a dead NPC is easier to “write out” and find a way around their plotline also the emotional component is much less pronounced as well even if the NPC is well-liked maybe even beloved by the group. The players, without much need for sensitivity can treat NPC-death as a role-playing opportunity. Players should however mind the GM’s pride in such situations. Of course, death shouldn’t appear as too random to the point that players feel it doesn’t matter what they do, they’re just going to die anyway. If the players begin to take that attitude then the GM may have made things a bit too difficult and may need to pull it back a little.

The nature of death in TRPGs is largely determined by the participants and secondarily by the published materials that they are using. This is also largely true of what amounts to the afterlife of the deceased character as well. Sometimes a setting, usually fantasy settings, will have a literal afterlife for dead characters to progress into and possibly adventure through (sometimes even while their still living). This essentially creates a no-death situation when viewed at certain angles but generally disengages the sense of loss that should accompany death even if the separation from the in-game living may be there, it usually can be breached if it hasn’t already especially concerning certain RPG character archetypes. By the breaching of the barrier between life and death I do mean the actual ability to communicate with the dead, travel into the dimensions of the dead (the actual afterlife), or otherwise have a factual or working knowledge that there is indeed an afterlife and perhaps even its nature is also known. If the barrier remains intact and even if communication with the afterlife is possible, its nature remains ambiguous then the main question is about what has the dead PC left behind.

How is the dead character going to be remembered, what is the in-game legacy that they’ve left, and how long will it remain?  Players can treat the death of their characters as the final character development; in essence it is exactly that. It should be determined how they are remembered and how the NPCs that knew them will react such as building a monument, composing a song, the character’s name figuring into a legend or song of the event especially if there are witnesses. Also do not discount the heaping of scorn onto their name if they died foolishly and perhaps a divisive tract authored for manipulative purposes. What is the nature of their commemoration? If the character has relatives or offspring will they carry on the legacy of the dead character? The group as a whole with the GMs guidance should take some time and figure out what the legacy of the dead character is. This ad-hoc eulogy may also help to bring home the loss to the group providing for a somewhat solemn role-playing opp.

The legacy of the departed character consists of the lasting opinions of the NPCs that have encountered them or that had relationships with them including relatives and descendants. These opinions and whatever personal anecdotes a character, especially NPCs, carry may only last as long as the character themselves particularly if nothing was recorded or commemorative works composed with respect to the game world. It will also include any leftover material wealth which will definitely come to the attention of their companions probably more immediately than the GM would like. Any dwellings or items and literary works that the character has created or influenced in-game will stand as a testament to their existence within the game-world even leaving a legacy in the form of a uniquely customized item or weapon which can at least carry their name onward if not standing as a reminder of their story/legend. But as with most stories it’s the most sensational bit that will burn its image into the minds of the players, PCs, and NPCs. Probably the most critical part of the deceased’s legacy, the bit that will be the most likely remembered, is how they died.

With the inclusion of death as stated before there is the potential for the glorious heroic death and the potential for self-sacrifice. Critically this allows players the opportunities to commit their characters to the Good Death. Players should never be forced or pushed into sacrificing their characters; it should be their choice. The good death is a death that happens on the terms of the character for the most part and from their death the potential for something good and lasting to come of it. This can mean the player chooses to have their character face death with discipline and bravery and eyes wide open or have them fight to the bitter and all too obvious end. The good death is the player’s choice and that which plays to their character either displaying their personality, serving as a redeeming development, or a heroic end. The Good-Death in an odd way contributes to the wholeness of the character. Any way you cut it, it is the end of that character’s personal story but an end with a flourish that will be remembered (if there’s a witness to remember it that is).

A good death should carry some kind of meaning as well not just for the character themselves but especially for the player whose character it was. Hopefully this meaning carries over to the group as a whole and at its best will influence the campaign in a positive way. If nothing else it should inspire some interesting war-stories. A good death can help to soften the personal blow that the player feels as well. Of course, if the character dies randomly their death may just be a fact of in-game life.

RPG-Death should be reasonably random in nature and be somewhat defeatable under special circumstances. Death in role-playing games doesn’t and in most cases shouldn’t follow the parameters of Perma-Death and definitely not seem to be entirely random. It should serve in its primary capacity to add a definitive element of thrill and risk into the game as well as provide opportunities for the PCs for a Good Death and as the final character development rather than merely the bitter end of a character. Where the players may have to deal with the death of a character in personal terms the GM has to deal with the death of PCs and the sudden deaths of NPCs in primarily mechanical ones.

The GM must keep track of their plot-points and the threads which wind and braid throughout their campaign and have backup plans for the important plotlines as well as a finely-honed talent for quickly and neatly tying together severed plotlines when necessary especially when confronted with a sudden and unexpected character death. The GM should also keep in mind the mechanical capacities of the PCs so as not to have to experience the unintentional extermination of the entire adventuring group in what is known as the Total Party Kill (TPK) phenomena. There is no recovering a game from a TPK as everyone is probably going to have to generate new characters that will probably not have any meaningful connections with the previous characters at all though it is possible to generate PCs that are related in various ways to the former not to mention the use of apprentices, protégés, and squires. These may pick-up any dangling threads left over by their predecessors but will definitely not be able to pick back up every single one to reboot the previous campaign. Also GMs shouldn’t use character death to punish players or as an excuse to penalize them though there should be consequences (which can invest the players in their current or new characters even more if handled correctly). Basically, don’t intentionally try to kill PCs especially since sometimes Random Death can still rear its ugly head when you least expect it.

Death like most other components of TRPGs is an opportunity to deepen the game and add to the experience of all of the participants. It is a component which contains thrills, risk, and strong emotions in strange and varying amounts and which leaves an indelible mark on the memory. It is a very heavy subject even where concerning RPGs and is almost a living part of them as sometimes it can be just as unpredictable and out of the GMs hands as in real-life but the nature of which can be altered and borders regulated to maximize enjoyment and make the most of the game.

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